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U.S. must have stake in Nigerian peace, speakers say

WASHINGTON (BP) — The United States has a responsibility to act to curtail extremist violence in Nigeria, religious freedom and human rights advocates from both countries said in a Capitol Hill briefing.

The June 5 event, sponsored by International Christian Concern (ICC), focused on a West African country that is by far the largest population-wise on the continent and is plagued by religious- and ethnic-based violence especially from Islamic forces. Among the 25 most populous countries in the world, Nigeria has the highest level of social hostilities, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. Nigeria ranks behind only Iraq and Afghanistan on the 2017 Global Terrorism Index produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

ICC’s Capitol Hill Policy Day followed by a week the release of the State Department’s annual report on global religious liberty. Sam Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said in a May 29 news briefing significant progress has been made, “but for far too many, the state of religious freedom is dire. We have to work together to accomplish change.”

The world and the United States have a “moral obligation” regarding Nigeria, but it is also in their self-interest to alleviate the conflict, said Frank Wolf, a longtime advocate for international religious freedom as a congressman and now a distinguished senior fellow with the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. “This is doable. This is the moment. There is the interest.

“I think this issue can be solved as long as we’re not dictating to Nigeria” what it must do, Wolf said.

Terwase Obunde, chief of staff to the governor of the Nigerian state of Benue, told the audience, “The U.S. must do all in its power not to allow Nigeria to slide into a state of anarchy. … By all means, Nigeria must not be allowed to fall into the hands” of democracy’s enemies.

Nathan Wineinger, the Wilberforce Initiative’s director of policy and coalitions, said, “U.S. citizens are the most powerful individuals in the world.” Americans “have a powerful opportunity” to support the rights of Nigerians and should act to prevent the Nigerian government from continuing to remain silent and ineffective, he said.

Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist organization, has gained most of the notoriety for its kidnapping of girls, destruction of church buildings and murderous attacks on villages in northeastern Nigeria, but Fulani extremists — also Muslims — have carried out violence in the Middle Belt, the country’s central region that stretches from the eastern to western border.

In April 2014, Boko Haram burned, looted or vandalized more than 700 church buildings and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, Obunde said. In the same month, the militants kidnapped nearly 280 girls from Chibok, more than 100 who have yet to be returned to their families. The terrorist group also captured more than 100 girls in February of this year. Although nearly all have been returned, one Christian girl — Leah Sharibu — remains in captivity because she refused to convert to Islam.

Fulani militant attacks in May resulted in more than 150 deaths, including the May 5 killings of 71 people in a village in the state of Kaduna, according to ICC. The Fulani attacks “demonstrate either incompetence, neglect or a degree of complicity on the part of the Nigerian military,” which has seldom stopped such violence, ICC said.

Christian communities have been the primary targets of Boko Haram and the Fulani, but other religious and ethnic groups also have suffered at their hands, ICC reported. The Middle Belt conflict — which involves Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers — is “extremely complicated,” Wineinger said. It has resulted in the deaths of Fulani people as well. Wineinger also told participants there is “mounting evidence” the Islamic State and other terrorists are moving into Nigeria and other African countries.

ICC has called on the Nigerian government to: (1) Reclaim the land taken by Fulani extremists and restore it to its rightful owners; (2) rebuild the destroyed villages; and (3) protect Nigerians from violent attacks in the future.

Matt Hawkins, a policy director for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press in written comments, “Nigeria is one of the most acute crises of systematic violence perpetrated against Christians on the globe. Our Nigerian brothers and sisters desperately need our prayers. It remains to be seen what will finally motivate the Nigerian government to meaningfully confront the groups terrorizing Christians.”

Speakers pointed to ways the United States can help in Nigeria.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — a bipartisan panel — is “quite frustrated” the State and Treasury departments have not used some of the tools they have in place to penalize Nigerian government leaders, USCIRF commissioner Kristina Arriaga said. No Nigerian government official should be able to send children to school in the United States and no government official should be able to come to New York to shop, she said.

“The U.S. absolutely should take moral responsibility” for the kind of assistance given to Nigeria, Arriaga said.

Wolf said the new team of State Department officials — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Brownback — is “very encouraging.” He called for the establishment of a special adviser on Nigeria and recommended outgoing Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee for the post.

Wolf urged the U.S. effort to be bipartisan. “This is not political,” he said. Wolf also urged Nigerians in the United States to be more active. “Quite frankly, I think the [Nigerian] diaspora has been AWOL,” he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, urged advocates to continue to bring attention to Nigeria. “There is power in shining a light,” he said. “Light is stronger than darkness, and truth is stronger than lies.”

ICC President Jeff King told participants if liberals and conservatives “work together, we can see tens of thousands of lives saved, if not more — again, if we avert civil war.”

Joy Bishara, who was kidnapped in Chibok four years ago, spoke about her experience. She was among more than 50 girls who escaped Boko Haram by fleeing a truck in which they were being transported. Bishara is a student at Southeastern University, a Lakeland, Fla., school affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

Her prayer is “there will be an end to it,” she told the audience. “People have suffered enough.”

Upon the release of the international religious freedom report, Pompeo announced a first-ever meeting at the State Department to advance religious liberty. The July 25-26 event will bring together officials from “like-minded governments,” as well as representatives of international organizations, religious groups and civil society, he said.